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|July 8, 2014
African VoiceA Weekend in New York
by Imo Eshiet
The journey was a grind. At night during the trip, a clingy Tina wrapped herself around me like a climber desperate for a supporting surface. That messed up my blood circulation and foreshadowed the constrictions that were to come.
By the time I got to New York my feet felt as leaden as an astronaut walking on the moon. My neck was as stiff as a pillar molded in concrete. I felt stupid for second-guessing myself. Initially I had thought to send a gift, but later decided against it.
It was the wedding of a niece. She was 31, and I had long looked forward to this day. However, I hadn’t reckoned with my age and the toll the nine-hour drive would take on my body when I let sentiments ride over my best judgment.
Tina and I began the journey driving up to Durham to connect with my brother Usen. There, along with his family of six, we crammed into a van made for the convenience of six passengers. But Usen and Jamie, his wife, were willing to sacrifice their personal comfort to take us along just so we could cut costs.
We left at 10 p.m. At one of our several stops at rest areas so the kids could visit the restroom, I noticed that my feet no longer fit into my sandals. My joints behaved as if a battle between soldier ants and bees were raging in them. Worse, I couldn’t turn my neck without much effort.
As soon as we got to New York and checked into our hotel, I hit the bed and was instantly swept away by sleep. By midday when Tina woke me, I was still as groggy with body aches as a sodden log floating in a lake. I was grateful that she went out with her cousins, aunt, and uncle for the wedding rehearsal which ceremony brought us to the Big Apple.
Left on my own I decided to reset my circulation by exploring the neighborhood of the hotel. I tried not to betray I was visiting from laidback Greensboro. So I mimicked the swagger of the huge city. I knew, however, I could not successfully ape the fleeting rhythms of the sprawling city.
Along the street, bicyclists and motorcyclists juggling for space were weaving dangerously in and out of traffic. To the side I saw an old bicycle tethered with iron chains to a pole. A sign on the pole read: “A cyclist was killed here.”
Cringing wild-eyed, I felt my pockets for my ID just in case! An African saying that, “A leopard may have a beautiful skin but not so its heart,” tugged at my mind, so I put caution in every step to avoid being taken unawares should the streets spring a surprise.
Looking over my shoulders once saved me in Lagos when I resisted an early morning heist and for that effrontery, was shot by the thugs.
Remembering that nasty experience, I felt like turning back to the hotel, but curiosity prodded me on. How could I resist the sights spread out before me when I knew the Yoruba saying that, “Anyone who sees beauty and does not look at it will soon be poor”? So I walked till my feet were sore. All the time I was conscious of being watched by the savvy New Yorkers, but I tried not to betray myself.
Something about New York defies easy assumption. Even a casual glance reveals the city is home to every human race under the sun. Anyone walking down its street hears a diversity of tongues that justifies it being called the capital of the world. Night and day, its mixed and colorful population sparkles like broken china in the sun, to borrow a phrase from Clark-Bekederemo, a Nigerian poet.
But as the Zulus also remark, “The most beautiful fig may contain a worm.” So for all its glitter, the fear of lurking danger is a very real possibility especially for visitors unfamiliar with its ways.
Whether coming in from the air, sea, or road, the packed towers of New York seem to menacingly jump from the surrounding waters and reach out to pump hands and bewitch the sight of the visitor. The serrated skyline of the city looks like the jagged edge of a giant chainsaw.
Each time I visit by road, driving through the tunnel linking New York with New Jew Jersey and, crossing the bridge over the Hudson River, I get that spellbound feeling of one watching a tightrope walker. I feel like I am passing through a baptism by immersion where I leave behind the burdens of a past life and take on the commitment of another.
I am dazed by the congested human and motor traffic. Towering buildings with spires and cliff-like staircases stapled to their sides like an afterthought, jam together and stand shoulder to shoulder like soldiers on parade. These with the pervasive unsettling din squeeze me breathless like the coils of a boa constrictor.
There are some family resemblances that make New York and Lagos look like twins. Without being told, it is easy to see that both cities are largely reclaimed from the sea. Though concrete has been lavishly used to suppress the moisture, yet one can sense the effect of water resolutely exerting itself and threatening to break loose.
Both cities seem to share a common taste for disorder. In Queens, fresh and not so fresh litter easily asserts itself on the streets. Drivers drive crazily as if the word “crash” no longer makes sense in the dictionary.
As is norm in Lagos, once the obstreperous drivers place their hands on the horn, they keep on honking. I get the impression the din is either music to their ears or adds some sort of hybrid mystic fuel to their engines.
The chaos here is however somewhat more controlled. In Lagos drivers swing and screech in the most hair-raising manner against oncoming traffic on roads clearly marked ONE WAY, and rain curses on other road users they narrowly miss to hit.
But in Queens, a semblance of order holds. No one in spite of the surging melee seems to run the red light. In Lagos, drivers dare or rather damn the light whenever there is enough electricity to make it come alive.
On our way out of the city, Isong, my young nephew, screams when he sees a body lying on the pavement. Jamie, his mom, casually explains it as a sleeping homeless person. I remain silent because my sensibility is too jaded.
In Lagos and other big Nigerian cities, bodies — whether homeless or cadaver — just litter the roads while passersby look the other way with the high-horse indifference of the proverbial travelers on the road to Jericho.
Mercifully there are no noxious smells here such as choke the daylight out of pedestrians in Lagos. Possibly that is because there are no open gutters running with sewage here. Also unlike Lagos where rats strut as if they too are citizens entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I find no rodents in sight.
Nigerian folk believe that, “If there is character, ugliness becomes beauty; if there is none, beauty becomes ugliness.” Since the noisy and difficult to deal with New York combines, character, beauty, and ugliness in good measure, I do not know what to make of our time-honored wit.
Thus confounded, I keep my impressions to myself. I have to. In the creeks I come from in Africa, “A canoe paddler doesn't tell the crocodile he has a long snout until he's crossed the river.”
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